Reflections on a Dog, a Hospital, and the Magic that Happens When They Come Together
By Dianne Wentworth, John Muir Health Volunteer
He was a good dog, as all dogs are. In his 12 years, he brought comfort to hundreds. But his original purpose was to bring comfort to just one.
Patient Bruce N. Smith pictured with Kai the therapy dog.
My pre-teen daughter was sick in Spring 2007. Daily vomiting kept her from school and in doctors’ offices and then the hospital for tests. The diagnosis -- h.pylori -- was not expected in one so young. The good news -- the treatment was several weeks of antibiotics -- but she would need the summer to rest up and catch up on school work. And what better therapy than a puppy.
We decided on a Labradoodle -- a cross of a poodle and a Lab -- because they tend to be hypoallergenic. And cute. Two weeks later the pup is in her lap as we drive home. But what to name him? Riley, because of his reddish coat, was one of my favorites, but we settled on Kai, the Hawaiian word for ocean or water, as a nod to my recently departed dad who loved Hawaii.
A week later I’m in the emergency department at Walnut Creek Medical Center, only this time I’m the patient. Tests point to colon cancer. As a single mom, this is scary news and I ask for no visitors since I don’t want my daughter to see me this way. Alone in my room, I process the news. At night, I watch the truly sick and injured land by helicopter. How frightening that ride must be for the patient and their family. That’s when I decide I need to find a way to reach into the hospital room of everyone who needs a friendly hand. Or, as it turns out, paw.
After colon surgery, I return home to a quickly growing puppy. He is happy to sit with me as I recuperate from surgery, and he sits with me all fall after chemo and radiation treatments. He is so un-rambunctious that I’m afraid something is wrong with him, but it turns out he is very good at reading energy levels. Kai’s gentle soul blooms as he sits with “his” patients. I realize he may have a future as a therapy dog.
When he was old enough he went through Canine Good Citizen classes at Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), the first step in becoming a therapy dog. Next came the interview. A behaviorist watched as he interacted with friendly strangers and how he reacted when his tail is unexpectedly tugged. Kai passes with an “A+”. Now to work.
"When Kai first put his paws into the lobby at Walnut Creek Medical Center, I knew he had found his second home. It didn’t matter the floor; he worked his magic with staff, visitors, and patients."
Over the years there have been so many memorable patients. The patient who spent time examining Kai’s teeth and ears. Turns out he was a bored vet. The surly patient who sat in a dark room. Kai stood outside the closed door of that room until the nurse opened it and asked the patient if she wanted a dog visit. Of course, Kai brought her out of the dark. The patient who hadn’t shown any purposeful movement until his hand was put to rest on top of Kai’s curly hair.
The patients were only part of his job on his Saturday visits to the medical center. His special friends were the staff. Off the elevator, turn right, and there were nurses who were happy to “prescribe” cuddle time with their young patients. On 4, he knew to turn left to find Sharon who happily provided the best treats ever. 4West was special. Staff members who were having a tough day would drop to the floor to give him an all-encompassing hug. No words were needed; his fur quietly absorbed the tears.
Kai started a new specialty his last 18 months on earth. He made a special friend in Lisa, one of the nurse practitioners who provide palliative care plans for patients and their families. Lisa introduced Kai to patients who needed a final warm, tactile experience through a dog cuddle on the bed. Magic.
I changed over the years after watching Kai work his magic. I learned bad things happen, and when they do, a seat belt or a helmet can make a difference. I learned to be less judgmental. And as I helped Kai through his own cancer journey, as he once helped me, I learned everyone has an end. His last minutes were the wish most of us have -- stretched out on a blanket in the grass, surrounded by love.